30 November 2007


"Refugees gather like so much undecided pain
to sit in an agonized waiting
for something that may or may not
come. This is the task."
~Chris Abani*
* From: "Refugees." Chris Abani. 2006. Hands Washing Water. Copper Canyon Press, page 23.
Image: The Guardian (26 November 07) ~ Bagerhat district, Bangladesh: A soldier keeps guard to ensure cyclone victims stay in a queue while waiting to receive aid. Photograph © Saurabh Das/AP.


Gruesome Smiles

Nazi officers and female auxiliaries (Helferinnen) run down
a wooden bridge in Solahutte. The man on the right carries
an accordion. Karl Hoecker is pictured in the center. The
original caption reads: "Rain coming from a bright sky."
(Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museum)

In The Nation this week is a long review by Susie Linfield of a set of four exhibitions at the ICP [1 2 3 4] that all revolve around photographs of the Spanish Civil War. I have posted on Linfield, whose writings I generally admire several times before. And Linfield has written on one of her themes here - Robert Capa - before. What strikes me about this essay is this set of observations prompted in part not just by the exhibitions at ICP, but by a set of photographs (newly discovered photographs of SS Troops at leisure near Auschwitz) that The New York Times published earlier in the fall. Here is Linfield:
“A smile is the strangest thing. In the right context it can illuminate the world, suggest kindness or joy, invite us into intimacy. But in the wrong setting, or on the wrong faces, it seems creepy, malevolent, even disgusting: a sign of moral corruption.

These thoughts were prompted by a visit, in October, to the four interconnected Spanish Civil War shows at the International Center of Photography in New York City (on view through January 6) and by a series of photographs that The New York Times had published the previous month...

The Times photos were full of laughter too. In one, a gleeful group of young, uniformed women and a few men - one of whom plays an accordion - surge across a wooden bridge as they try to escape a rainstorm. In another, a group of well-coiffed, pretty young women, all wearing dark pleated skirts and neat white blouses, sit on the ledge of a deck as they eat blueberries and smile for the camera. Anyone who claims we can no longer be shocked by photographs is wrong; for these banal pictures - part of a newly discovered trove of snapshots taken by an anonymous SS officer in the summer of 1944 - depict a group of Auschwitz guards relaxing and at play. (As Jean Hatzfeld showed in Machete Season, his book of interviews with Rwandan genocidaires, torture and murder are hard work.) The Auschwitz employees look healthy, strong, confident and cheerful: horror is the word for this.

All of which is to say: in looking at photographs, especially those that document the political crises of our time, context is (almost) everything. A smile can welcome a new world or announce its annihilation.”
I had noticed The Times story and slide show when it appeard but was not sure what to write at the time. I think Linfield succintly captures the deeply gruesome scenes the photographs convey.


29 November 2007

Institute a Draft or Withdraw

That is the choice that a group of (once career, now former) U.S. Army officers insist we face in Iraq; it is not news on the home front, really. These are essentially the only alternatives I have seen as plausible for some time. Since I have a draft age son and since I think the fundamental Bush foreign policy was flawed and duplicitous from the start, you know which option I would support. But I am just a left-wing academic out to warp young minds. So don't listen to me. Listen instead to some of those responsible for implementing the BushCo policy "on the ground" in Iraq. These are men and women who intially supported the war, who went off to fight for their country, and who now have returned wholly disillusioned. Read what they say. Listen to their voices. You can read The Washington Post Op-Ed where these officers state their case here. There was a recap report on npr yesterday morning. (You might also want to consult this New York Times Op-Ed from mid-August in which a half-dozen enlisted men and non-commisioned officers voice their quite similar assessment of conditions 'on the ground' in Iraq.)

Instead of listening to Bush (or his lackies) and the various spineless Democratic and Republican candidates vying to replace him, let alone the propagandists at Fox or CNN or various beltway Think Tanks, or, for that matter, a bunch of generals worried about their careers [1 2 3], listen to the folks who have been off fighting in this doomed war. Bring the troops home.

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Bringing Home Iraq

Dawn Halfaker ~ Photograph © Timothy Greenfield-Sanders

I've appropriated the title for this post from an essay by Nicholas Mills that appears in the Fail 07 issue of Dissent. The essay assesses the recent portraits Timothy Greenfield-Sanders has made of wounded military veterans returned from Iraq. The project is called "Alive Day Memories" and you can find some of the work here. The photographer previously has made portraits of various political and artistic celebrities and, most recently pubished a book of portraits of porn stars - XXX: 30 Porn Star Portraits (Bulfinch, 2004). In many respects these more recent portraits of veterans resemble Nina Berman's Purple Hearts project. Here is a passage from the Mills essay that leaves me very ambivalent:

“'Alive Day Memories' is no substitute for the political analysis of the
Iraq War found in George Packer’s The Assasins’ Gate and
Thomas Ricks’s Fiasco, nor is it an alternative to Dan Baum’s brilliant
reportage on the wounded in his 2004 New Yorker article,
“The Casualty.” Still, when it comes to arguing that the time
has come to bring the Iraq War to a close, nobody has made the
case in a way more likely to convince the undecided than
Greenfield-Sanders. His visual politics forecloses debate."

I agree that these images are no substitute for political analyses of why we went to war in the first place and why, having done so, the invasion of Iraq has descended into the debacle that it has. I also agree that these images provde powerful reasons to end the war immediately. But I still have qualms about what Mills says. These emerge from the notion that Greenfield-Sanders' work "forecloses debate." That phrase makes me nervous, especially when it appears in the pages of a journal many of whose prime movers were vigorous supporters of the war. Yes, there is little reason to stay in Iraq. These photos depict sacrifice and loss that are a testament to political folly. But we should not accept them as an excuse to foreclose debate; we should assess why and how we got into Iraq and why (predictably) it turned into a disaster. This is crucial not just for the neo-cons who perpetrated the war and the larger public who willfully or otherwise acceded to their plans; it is crucial too for those "pro-war liberals" who should have seen this state of affairs coming - even ex ante. The latter should look at these portraits and ask not just how they could've been so mistaken but how they might avoid making the same mistakes in the future. It may not be that Mills is looking to pre-empt such a re-assessment, such an attempt to learn from a massive, costly error in political judgement. (I do not want to misconstrue his intent.) But the pro-war liberals do not need much of an excuse to avoid facing the hard questions. I have noted this here before and I am simply noting it here again now.

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28 November 2007

William Blake (November 28, 1757 – August 12, 1827)

"Politics today is largely a question of management
and administration. Blake, by contrast, viewed the
political as inseparable from art, ethics, sexuality and
the imagination. It was about the emancipation of desire,
not its manipulation. Desire for him was an infinite
delight, and his whole project was to rescue it from
the repressive regime of priests and kings."
~ Terry Eagleton

“William Blake ... was never involved in politics or the direct
protest or campaigning of his day. Yet what he wrote, and the
ways in which he produced it, are testimony to an impressive
intellectual achievement whose effects match anything produced
by more openly political writers. His work has enabled ordinary
people to recognise the mental and as well as the economic
chains which bind them. He sought to affirm the importance
of every member of society in the struggle for community
and human betterment.” ~ Christopher Rowland

Update: Text links added 11/29.



“'New Photography' is generally limited to three or four artists,
which puts pressure on the chosen few to deliver something
fresh. None of this year’s photographers accomplish that."

There you have it. The key judgement in The New York Times review of "New Photography 2007" now showing at MOMA in NYC. I guess we should all rush out to take in the show? The three photographers with work in this exhibition are Tanyth Berkeley, Scott McFarland, & Berni Searle. Having looked at their work on line, it seems to me that The Times assessment is about right. It is not that the work is bad, only that there is nothing vaguely pathbreaking or "fresh" about it (Berkeley, in particular seems to me to be more or less wholly derivative). So what is the curator, Eva Respini, thinking?


27 November 2007

Blueeyes #16

The latest issue - No. Sixteen - of Blueeyes is out and contains a bunch of terrific work byLandon Nordeman, Carolyn Drake, Dan Seltzer, Jim Lo Scalzo, and Darin Mickey. The editors have developed several new features that will improve (I think) what already is one of my favorite photography publications.


How To Pay for A Free Press

A few days ago I posted on the vicissitudes of independent media, pointing out the irony of the fledgling Toronto-based blackfly magazine simultaneously receiving critical accolades and experiencing a more or less dire financial crisis. In this essay reprinted in Eurozine, André Schiffrin who for many years ran Pantheon and is now a prime mover at The New Press (a "not-for-profit publishing house with titles on educational, cultural, ethnic, and community subjects") addresses the problem of "How to Pay for a Free Press." The central problem seems to be how to insure diversity in media "markets" where the threat of concentration and homogenization is high. As Schriffin makes clear the danger is not just that we risk an anemic cultural ecology but that players in a concentrated are perhaps less likely to resist political pressures when government seeks to restrict information. And, to be clear, government has always provided a scaffolding for the "free press" in the U.S. by, for instance, providing unified, efficient postal service.* This, of course, is simply a specific instance of why enforceable rights presuppose government instead of pre-existing it.** So the issue here is one of institutional design ~ how to create institutions that can sustain a free press organized primarily through a market while at the same time not affording those institutions undue direct influence over how the market operates.
* Paul Starr. 2004. The Creation of the Media: Political Origins of Modern Communications. Basic Books.
** Stephen Holmes & Cass Sunstein. 1999. The Cost of Rights: Why Liberty Depends on Taxes. W.W. Norton.


Who Knew? Political Theory Makes for a Good Career Choice

"In the years after the second world war, there was a sort of
Wittgensteinian air about philosophy, which meant practitioners
were proud of the fact that they appeared slightly esoteric and
were not doing anything practical. There was very little political
philosophy, and moral philosophy was disengaged from people's
actual moral problems, and that did lead to the subject being
marginalised. That has changed. Political philosophy is a central
part of the Cambridge course." ~ Simon Blackburn

I missed this story in The Guardian when it appeared last week. It turns out that studying philosophy is a relatively wise career choice for British undergraduates. Why? It turns out too that British employers like to hire people who can think. That seems like a novel idea! Moreover, in the passage quoted above, Simon Blackburn attributes the enhanced fortunes of young philosophers to the relatively central role now given to moral and political philosophy in the undergraduate curriculum! Of course, my home department has, without any real discussion, more or less eliminated political philosophy in favor of even greater emphasis on intellectually muddled endeavors like game theoretic and quantitative studies of international relations.* I suppose the best our students might hope for is that employers in the U.S. are less interested in hiring employees who can think than are their British competitors.
* I will happily defend this characterization of our new emphasis if it offends anyone.
[Thanks to Evelyn Brister for bringing this article to my attention.]


26 November 2007

Inferno: Globalization Meets "the Middle Ages"

As metal pours into ladles, sparks fly, sometimes igniting workers’
clothing, at Shakti Industries in Haora. Plant officials say accidents
do not occur. Photograph © J. Adam Huggins for
The New York Times.

Workers in Haora, India, have few protections while making manhole
covers for Con Edison and some cities’ utilities.
Photograph © J. Adam Huggins forThe New York Times.

So, the manhole cover scandal has hit NYC (and several other municipalities) having been prompted by photographs. The story is here. It seems that pictures of the Indian foundry where manhole covers are manufactured have shocked!, shocked! the public and private bureaucrats who write the contracts. Who is kidding who here? We are buying the lack of workplace regulation. That is what globalization means now. The problem, of course, is that increased safety regulations will no doubt be blamed for predictably rising costs and the loss of jobs.

The reporters from The New York Times write that the scene was astounding ~"flames, sweat and liquid iron mixing in the smoke like something from the Middle Ages." Call that globalization as we know it, where capital and product can move more or less effortlessly, labor cannot, and is almost wholly unprotected where workers live; and remember that these workers are relatively "lucky" to have their Medieval jobs.


Your Very Own Personal Torture Device

"In today’s world, maintaining self confidence involves the need
for self protection. For independent, self-reliant women, the TASER®
C2 is an effective protection device that fits any lifestyle."*

"With the TASER® C2, you can have police proven, effective
that is convenient to carry and easy to use. Over
270,000 law enforcement p
rofessionals have come to rely
on TASER devices to protect life."*

So, first you buy an MP3 player for personal entertainment, then a Blackberry for personal organization, then a Taser to zap all those assailants lurking in your mind (planted there, of course, by those who can profit ~ politically or economically ~ from fear). Notice the cross-cutting gender appeals in these two adverts. One is aimed at men worried about protecting a dependent family, the other at independent career women intent on protecting themselves. This is a product for everyone ~ regardless of whether you fear for your "life" or your "lifestyle."

There is one small problem; today The New York Times reports that the United Nations Committee Against Torture has suggested that the use of Tasers constitutes a form of torture. Given that Tasers also are commonly carried by both police and private security forces (e.g., on college campuses) this is an interesting development. (Thanks Jörg!)
* From: webpage of Taser International.


Thank God We've Overcome this Epidemic

The Guardian (26 November 07): Seville, Spain. Women with
red dye on their feet, representing blood, march during a
protest against domestic violence to commemorate
International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women
Photograph © Eduardo Abad/AP.

I used the news function to Google "International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women" and discovered next to no uptake in the western press. So it must be that is only in developing countries that gender-based violence is a too common, ongoing occurrence.


25 November 2007

Celebrating the Accomplishments of Friends: Susan Bogle Finnegan

Susan Bogle Finnegan


Schein, oil on canvas, 72 x 84 inches
December 6, 2007 – February 2, 2008
Reception: Thr December 6, 6-8 pm

Paesaggio Fine Art

Paesaggio at 100 Pearl
100 Pearl Street
Hartford, CT 06103

Mon – Fri, 9 am – 8 pm
Sat, 9 am – 3 pm


New England Now
(Paper/New England)

November 15, 2007 - January 11, 2008
Opening Reception: November 15, 7-10 pm
56 Arbor Street, Hartford, CT
Thursday, Friday 3-8pm, Saturday 1-8 pm
and always by appointment.

New England Now is a celebration of the exemplary work being produced in New England today and sets the tone for P/NE going forward. Three accomplished artists from each state redefine the common expectation for contemporary art in New England.

Susan Finnegan is a terrific artist. She also is one of my oldest, dearest friends; we have known each other since a Halloween Party at the Pittsfield Girls Club in, I think, 1971. Always the slick talker, I complimented her on her hiking boots. In the intervening years, my opening line notwithstanding, she has been been a wonderfully steadfast friend. So it is with the greatest pleasure that I call your attention to these two exhibitions. The first is a solo show. The second is a group show in which Susan is one of three artisits from Connecticut. If you are near Hartford please go and see her work.


Call For Papers: Kern Conference on Visual Communications ~ Rhetorics & Technologies

I want to call your attention to this Call for Papers. The conference will be held in April 2008 and is sponsored by The Rochester Institute of Technology. I will appear with Cara Finnegan, Michael Shaw, John Lucaites and Robert Hariman on a Plenary Roundtable "Blogging Visual Politics." The deadline for paper proposals is December 1, 2007.


Independent Press & Its Vicissitudes

The other day I read an article in In These Times by Erin Polgreen enitled "R.I.P LiP"; it is a eulogy for a now defunct independent magazine. Of course, In These Times has had its share of financial troubles over the past few years. Hopefully it will survive in its re-organized format.

Polgreen astutely notes that even when they disappear such endeavors often serve as incubators for young independent minded journalists and wiwrters and artists. As an example she points to Matt Bernstein Sycamore (a.k.a. Matilda) who has moved on from LiP to Make/Shift ~ Feminisms in Motion. The latter "creates and documents contemporary feminist culture and action by publishing journalism, critical analysis, and visual and text art." And it seems to be off to a good start. Indeed, Make/Shift has been nominated for a 2007 Utne Independent Press Award in the category of "Best New Publication." On their web page the Make/Shift folks not only noted their own nomination but (generously) also linked to all the other nominees too.

I figured that I would follow the links and check out some of the other incipient undertakings. One of these, Blackfly, is published in Toronto and presents itself as "taking a bite out of Ontario politics." It too looks like a terrific outfit run by committed young folks on a shoestring.

Unfortunately, even though it has garnered critical notice, Blackfly seems to be really struggling financially. So if you are committed to the value of a robust, independent press, and especially if you live north of the border, think about subscribing or even donating some of the dollars you'd otherwise devote to holiday shopping.


24 November 2007

The Week in Coal

The Guardian (16 November 07): Victoria, Australia. An aerial view
of a coal mine that collapsed, washing away a road and railway lines.
Photograph © Newspix/Rex Features.

BBC (18 November 07): A build up of methane gas in a coal mine
in eastern Donetsk, Ukraine, killed at least 90 miners.
It is the worst mine disaster in the country's history.
Photograph © Alexander Khudotepl.
Agence France-Presse - Getty Images.

The Guardian (19 November 07): Banovici, Bosnia:
People search amid industrial waste to collect coal to
sell at a local market
. Photograph © Amel Emric/AP.

The Guardian (21 November 07) Chongqing, China: A worker in a pit
at the Moxinpo colliery
. Photograph © China Photos/Getty Images.

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Bilal Hussein Update (2)

At State of the Art David Schonauer has spoken out forthrightly in defense of Bilal Hussein's rights to a prompt, fair hearing. I regularly disagree with Daivd, but think this statement is important. Meanwhile, at Conscientious Jörg Colberg has linked to this report that supplies much needed background detail:

U.S. Seeks to Prosecute Pulitzer Prize-Winning A.P. Photographer
Scott Horton (Harper's ~ 21 Nov. 07)

"Reports out since Monday note that the United States Department of Defense will seek to have criminal charges brought against Bilal Hussein, an Associated Press photographer who belonged to a team that won the 2005 Pulitzer Prize for photographs of the war in Iraq. Hussein’s contribution to the package included a series of arresting photographs of close up fighting from the assault on Falluja.

The story was first broken by a right-wing blogger who has has been used as a regular dissemination point for information about the case by senior Pentagon figures. That fact is one of the dead give-aways of the case. This blogger and several of her associates published histrionic attacks on Hussein before he was arrested, claiming that his photographs showed that he was associated with insurgent organizations and attacking the Pulitzer Committee for its decision to honor the A.P.’s submission of war photographs. In the end, the order to arrest Hussein came from very high up, and the reason for the arrest was unmistakable: he was the man who took those damned photographs!

A Pentagon source who requested anonymity advised me that the Pentagon has prepared a total of nine charges against Hussein. All but two of the charges are “make weight,” the source said. The two “more serious accusations” are that Hussein promised to help an individual suspected of involvement in insurgent activities to secure a false I.D., and that his photographs—disseminated internationally by the A.P.–demonstrate that Hussein is a propagandist for insurgents. The source said all of these allegations, excepting perhaps the claims about the I.D., were “extremely weak” and “lacked any meaningful evidence to support them” but noted that “after more than a year and a half of holding this man in prison, it was not possible simply to release him, because that would mean admitting that a mistake was made.”

The source also stated that the Pentagon’s public affairs division, now headed by Dorrance Smith, had been deeply engaged in the matter from the outset. He said that the Pentagon would say that all decisions were made on the ground in Baghdad. “In a formal sense that is true, but Baghdad is dancing to the Pentagon’s tune.” The source also stated that using right-wing bloggers as a means of disseminating the story was a strategy formally embraced by Pentagon public affairs at a very high level. “They’re natural allies. Our message is their message. And they have no particular interest in fact-checking. It drives the mainstream media nuts.” He likened the right-wing blogosphere to sheep dogs who would keep the American mainstream media in line.

The Associated Press and its lawyers have previously investigated all specific allegations made against Hussein. In every case, the allegations turned out to be baseless. I examined several of the allegations myself, and learned in the process that the U.S. military had not even investigated the accusations it dished out. Similarly, the Associated Press undertook a review of all of the Hussein photographs and concluded that a series of claims made by right-wing bloggers and the Pentagon about them were simply untrue. Much of this could be established through contemporaneous and conclusive evidence.

With respect to the accusation about I.D.s, my own experience in Baghdad showed that fake I.D.s were readily available in the public market and that most if not all Iraqis had them. The demand for fake I.D.s has an obvious source. Sunni Iraqis are eager to have identification that shows them to be Shi’ia and vice versa in order to try to evade ethnic cleansing operations that target a large part of the citizenry. The charge leveled at Hussein, if true, is therefore something of which a large part of the population is guilty.

Finally, U.S. forces have repeatedly insinuated that Hussein had close ties to a particular insurgent organization based in Al-Anbar province. No serious evidence has been presented to support this claim. However, the organization they cite is not considered to be hostile by U.S. forces in the region today. In fact, it has regularly cooperated with U.S. forces, and is now receiving training and equipment support from the Americans. It is in fact one of the key pillars in the U.S. military’s successful transformation of the situation in Al-Anbar. So the implication that Hussein is somehow an insurgent is also consciously deceitful.

It is also striking that the Pentagon says that Hussein attempted to “infiltrate” the Associated Press. Having studied in great detail the process by which Hussein came to be hired, I know this is an absurd allegation. But it has a clear provenance. Former Defense Secretary Rumsfeld and some of his key Neoconservative advisors repeatedly leveled this accusation in the period 2004-06. As you will recall, this is the period in which Iraq was most emphatically not in a “Civil War,” according to the Pentagon (though not according to the generals on the ground in Iraq). The situation on the ground in Iraq was souring, American media were reporting on it, and this was emerging as a domestic political issue. The Pentagon was eager to chill media coverage of the insurgency.

There is probably no journalist in Iraq who did more to provide dramatic coverage of the insurgency in Al-Anbar than Bilal Hussein. This is why he was seized, and it is why he is now coming to face charges. But in the end, the facts couldn’t be plainer. The Pentagon’s real gripe has never been with journalists on the ground like Hussein: it has been with the editors who allow their reporting to creep into the American mainstream.

It is in the end about freedom of the press, and the right of the American public to secure more comprehensive coverage of what is happening in a war zone.

“The press is not the enemy,” Secretary Gates recently told the graduating class of midshipmen in Annapolis. But the treatment of Bilal Hussein suggests this message has still not sunk in with some Pentagon politicos. Part of the press is very clearly still being viewed as “the enemy.” And Bilal Hussein has become the whipping boy."


I've highlighted several portions of this piece from Harper's online that seem especially disturbing. The first point is that BushCo is using right-wing bloggers to spew propaganda as a matter of policy. This is not "independent" media; it is pathetic, intellectually dishonest, and servile. It makes the Washington press corps look like a font of reliable reporting. It surely is not in any way "patriotic" since it involves disseminating dubious information to citizens for whom the government allegedly works in ways that undermine the operation of a free and reliable press. More on this point below.

The second point, is that the military not only seems to have no evidence for any of their charges, but seems to have made no effort to actually obtain any. The charges against Hussein apparently are baseless. I myself cannot make that determination with confidence. But that is why we have a judicial system, which the military has assiduously avoided in this case, ~ to determine whether charges and allegations are plausible let alone "true." As I have said here before, either bring the man to court and make your best case or release him. (Of course, the right is now falling back on the rationalization that the real, damning evidence against Hussein is "top secret," "classified," etc. and so cannot actually be revealed. Funny how the press reports on this case fail to mention that fact. Perhaps what is at work is over-heated right-wing group think.)

The third point is that Bilal Hussein has been denied legal protections and he apparently has been so mistreated because his work embodies the aims of a free press. He was showing us things the U.S. government wanted to keep hidden. For that he has been held for nearly two years without charge. The U.S. government has locked up Bilal Hussein and the only rationale they've offered for doing so is "Because we say so." I thought we were fighting to spread democracy and the rule of law. This seems like an extremely odd way of pursuing that aim.

Finally, the un-named right-wing blogger is Michelle Malkin, on whose blog you can find the interesting graphic at the top of this post. (Like any good right-winger her post on Hussein is a tissue of insinuation and implausible inference.) Malkin clearly subscribes to the well-know pillar of Western law "guilt by association." And she shows no real need to rely on actual evidence since there is, in this case, none on offer. If this is what conservatism amounts to here in the U.S., our circumstances are dire.

P.S.: You can find a press release from The Committee to Protect Journalists on the Hussein case here. And Reporters Without Borders relased a similar plea here.

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23 November 2007

Now a Major Motion Picture

Late last summer I posted on the Reverend Billy and his anti-consumption campaign ~ the Church of Stop Shopping. The film documenting his campaign is being released just in time for the holiday buying season. The review from The New York Times is here. Will you heed the word?


Well, That Surely is a Relief! Studies Show Traditional Family Roles are Best

Today The Guardian reports on a recent study of paternal involvement in early child rearing. The effects seem especially dire for the cognitive development of boys raised by fathers. According to this study, depending on the child's age, boys who receive significant amounts of care from their fathers can suffer effects across several domains that range from actively harmful to merely "no significant effects ... either positive or negative." Curiously, the study finds no analogous effects on girls. I am sure there are many who will take this as justification for keeping fathers as far out of the lives of their young sons as is possible. Unfortunately, there is a problem. In the same issue of the journal where this study appears is another study indicating that boys whose mothers work outside the home are at increased risk of obesity as teenagers. So, it seems, no matter what you do your kid may grow up to be stupid or fat ~ unless, that is, you adopt the Ward and June Cleaver model of family life.

22 November 2007

Our Immigration Problem: Connecting Some of the Dots

Recently The New York Times reported that: "The Department of Homeland Security is ahead of schedule in building some 700 miles of fencing along the Mexican border." The "fence," of course, is meant to protect us from the threat posed by all those brown-skinned, foreign-tongued economic migrants from Central America. How rare is it that a government project is ahead of schedule? If only our security agencies might address other, really pressing immigrant threats with similar alacrity.

Today The Times reports that 60% of foreign fighters infiltrating Iraq come from our "allies" Saudi Arabia and Libya. We can't build a fence to keep these deadly immigrants out. Indeed, it is not at all clear that such immigration (or any other type) is susceptible to such military-style solutions. What we ought to be doing in the face of this immigration problem is exporting democracy to the Middle East by encouraging the despotic Saudi regime to democratize. Why? One plausbile reason is that, as economist Alan Krueger explains [1] [2], terrorists tend not to be terribly impoverished or poorly educated; but they do tend to have grown up under repressive regimes that fail to extend civil and political liberties to their citizens
P.S.: And for readers who've convinced themselves that terrorists are irrational, criminal, predominantly Muslim, and likely to infiltrate the U.S. via Mexico, . . . oooopps! Krueger explains here that none of those deep insights are plausible. It is astounding what you might learn if you look and see instead of being guided solely by fear and rank prejudice.

P.S.2: If you want to read the research on which the opinion peices I've linked to here is based try Alan Krueger. 2007. What Makes a Terrorist? Princeton UP.

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Political Entrepreneurs

You may find it interesting to listen to my friend Henry Farrell on bloggingheads.tv discussing the "celebri-tization" of politics (among other things) with Dan Drezner. The conversation is prompted in part by Drezner's recent essay in the con/neo-con leaning National Interest ~ "Foreign Policy Goes Glam." I have weighed in on related matters here and here and here in the past and tend to agree with Henry on this issue. My sense is that Bono, Angelina Jolie, et. al. bring panache to the privatization of policy issues, nothing more. And if we find the underlying privatization dubious the panache is not redeeming. I do not think famine, epidemic, war & peace, etc. properly are matters of philanthropy. In my view Al Gore and his campaign and Bill Gates and his foundation and Erik Prince and his Blackwater mercenaries [1 2 3 4 5 6 7] all are privatizing and moralizing politics, both domestic and international, in highly dubious ways.

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21 November 2007

From: Italo Calvino "The Adventure of a Photographer"*

". . . In Antonino’s darkroom, strung with films and proofs, Bice peered from every frame, as thousands of bees peer out from the honeycomb of a hive, but always the same bee: Bice in every attitude, at every angle, in every guise, Bice posed or caught unaware, an identity fragmented into a powder of images.

"But what’s this obsession with Bice? Can’t you photograph anything else?" was the question he heard constantly from his friends, and also from her.

"It isn’t just a matter of Bice," he answered. "It’s a question of method. Whatever person you decide to photograph, or whatever thing, you must go on photographing it always, exclusively, at every hour of the day and night. Photography has a meaning only if it exhausts all possible images."

But he didn’t say what meant most to him: to catch Bice in the street when she didn’t know he was watching her, to keep her in the range of hidden lenses, to photograph her not only without letting himself be seen but without seeing her, to surprise her as she was in the absence of his gaze, of any gaze. Not that he wanted to discover any particular thing; he wasn’t a jealous man in the usual sense of the word. It was an invisible Bice that he wanted to possess, a Bice absolutely alone, a Bice whose presence presupposed the absence of him and everyone else.

Whether or not it could be defined as jealousy, it was, in any case, a passion difficult to put up with. And soon Bice left him.

Antonino sank into deep depression. He began to keep a diary — a photographic diary, of course. With the camera slung around his neck, shut up in the house, slumped in an armchair, he compulsively snapped pictures as he stared into the void. He was photographing the absence of Bice.

He collected the photographs in an album: you could see ashtrays brimming with cigarette butts, an unmade bed, a damp stain on the wall. He got the idea of composing a catalog of everything in the world that resists photography, that is systematically omitted from the visual field not only by camera but also by human beings. On every subject he spent days, using up whole rolls at intervals of hours, so as to follow the changes of light and shadow. One day he became obsessed with a completely empty corner of the room, containing a radiator pipe and nothing else: he was tempted to go on photographing that spot and only that till the end of his days.

The apartment was completely neglected; old newspapers, letters lay crumpled on the floor, and he photographed them. The photographs in the papers were photographed as well, and an indirect bond was established between his lens and that of distant news photographers. To produce those black spots the lenses of other cameras had been aimed at police assaults, charred automobiles, running athletes, ministers, defendants.

Antonino now felt a special pleasure in portraying domestic objects framed by a mosaic of telephotos, violent patches of ink on white sheets. From his immobility he was surprised to find he envied the life of the news photographer, who moves following the movements of crowds, bloodshed, tears, feasts, crime, the conventions of fashion, the falsity of official ceremonies; the news photographer, who documents the extremes of society, the richest and the poorest, the exceptional moments that are nevertheless produced at every moment and in every place.

Does this mean that only the exceptional condition has a meaning? Antonino asked himself. Is the news photographer the true antagonist of the Sunday photographer? Are their worlds mutually exclusive? Or does the one give meaning to the other?

Reflecting like this, he began to tear up the photographs with Bice or without Bice that had accumulated during the months of his passion, ripping to pieces the strips of proofs hung on the walls, snipping up the celluloid of the negatives, jabbing the slides, and piling the remains of this methodical destruction on newspapers spread out on the floor.

Perhaps true, total photography, he thought, is a pile of fragments of private images, against the creased background of massacres and coronations. . . . "
* Italo Calvino. 1984. Difficult Loves. Harcourt Brace, pages 220-35. Original Italian publication date 1958.


20 November 2007

Zimbabwe: The Fight to Free a Country

I recommend this video from the Open Society Institute.

"ZIMBABWE IN CRISIS ~ Zimbabwe is hurtling toward a disaster. Hyperinflation and police violence, set against the backdrop of AIDS and the intractable dictatorship of Robert Mugabe, have brought the country’s people to the brink of economic and social collapse. On March 11, opposition activists gathered for a peaceful prayer meeting and called for Mugabe to resign. Even this peaceful protest was too much for the authorities. Mugabe’s police descended upon the meeting with tear gas and clubs. In the days that followed, many of the protestors suffered beatings and torture.

Zimbabwe: The Fight to Free a Country combines footage from inside Mugabe’s police state with testimony from torture survivors, activists, and lawyers who have witnessed the regime’s repression first hand. As the humanitarian situation deteriorates and election season draws near, activists call on the international community to assist Zimbabwe’s people in their struggle to overcome repression and establish a democracy."


Louis Armstrong

Louis Armstrong, 1935.
Photograph: © Anton Bruehl/Condé Nast Publications Inc.

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Bilal Hussein Update

Photojournalist Bilal Hussein (center) visiting
his brother and nieces, November 2004.

More than a year ago I posted on the predicament of Bilal Hussein an Iraqi photographer working for AP who'd been detained by the U.S. Military on suspicion of espionage and aiding Iraqi insurgents. He has been held without charge for 19 months. Today The New York Times is running this update on his case (you can read discussion at The Guardian here). He is being brought to the Iraqi judicial system to face as yet unspecified charges. According to the story AP remains adamant that the military's suspiscions are unfounded.

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19 November 2007

The Gaze of 45 Mexican Photographers

From the series "The Line, Mexican - U.S.A. Border" 2001-2002.
Photograph © Pavka Segura

AIDS, 1997, Plaza de la Soledad, La Merced, Mexico City.
Photograph © Francisco Mata

These are two of the 450 photographs that make up this exhibition of Mexican photographers at The Guangdong (China) Museum of Art. Although it completely escapes me why anyone feels the need to invoke "the Gaze," especially in a so heterogenous a group as those collected in this exhibition, a lot of the work is interesting.


On the Usefulness of (Denying the Existence of) Walls for Politics (5)

Photograph © Muhammed Muheisen/Associated Press

This photograph made it into the "Pictures of the Day" or "The Day in Pictures" at both the BBC and The New York Times today (19 November 07). What caught my eye were the captions which, respectively, read:

BBC: "A Palestinian youth attempts to cross Israel's separation barrier
from Jerusalem into the West Bank town of Aram."

Times: "A Palestinian youth crossed a section of Israel's separation
from Jerusalem into the West Bank town of Aram. Israel
approved the
release of 441 Palestinian prisoners ahead of the
planned meeting of
Middle Eastern leaders in Annapolis, Md.,
and pledged not to build
any new settlements in the West Bank."

There is not much difference except that The Times highlights Israeli gestures in advance of the meeting next week. But notice the language I've italicized where the two captions do overlap. I find it perplexing. Why is it that the media refuses to call this edifice for what it is - a wall? Why the need to use euphemisms? Is this official Israeli Government terminology? I don't know. If so, why can't the Israeli's call a wall a wall? If not, where does the Western media get its language?

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18 November 2007

Adam Zagajewski ~ Three Poems

Adam Zagajewski

Those who don't like it say it's
just a mutant violin
that's been kicked out of the chorus.
Not so.
The cello has many secrets,
but it never sobs,
just sings in its low voice.
Not everything turns into song
though. Sometimes you catch
a murmer or a whisper:
I'm lonely,
I can't sleep.

Translated by Clare Cavanagh,

Adam Zagajewski

Probably I am an ordinary middle-class
believer in individual rights, the word
"freedom" is simple to me, it doesn't mean
the freedom of any class in particular.
Politically naive, with an average
education (brief moments of clear vision
are its main nourishment), I remember
the blazing appeal of that fire which parches
the lips of the thirsty crowd and burns
books and chars the skin of cities. I used to sing
those songs and I know how great it is
to run with others; later, by myself,
with the taste of ashes in my mouth, I heard
the lie's ironic voice and the choir screaming
and when I touched my head I could feel
the arched skull of my country, its hard edge.

Translated by Renata Gorczynski.

In May
Adam Zagajewski

As I walked at dawn in the forest
in May. I kept asking where you are, souls
of the dead. Where are you, the young ones
who are missing, where are you,
the completely transformed?
Great stillness reigned in the forest,
and I heard the green leaves dream,
I heard the dream of the bark from which
boats, ships, and sails will arise.
Then, slowly, birds joined in,
goldfinches, thrushes, blackbirds
on the balconies of branches, each of them spoke
differently, in his own voice, not asking for anything,
with no bitterness or regret.
And I realized you are in singing,
unseizable as music, indifferent as
musical notes, distant from us
as we are from ourselves.

Translated by Renata Gorczynski.
From: Adam Zagajewski. 2002. Without End: New and Selected Poems. Farrar Straus Giroux. Pages 252, 101, 100.

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Roscoe Mitchell

In The Nation this week is a nice essay by Brian Morton on saxophonist/composer Roscoe Mitchell who, among other things, is a stalwart in the Association for the Advancement of Creative Musicians (AACM) and a founding member of and driving force behind the Art Ensemble of Chicago. I've been listening to the AEC since before I went to graduate school, but have only occasionally listened to any of Mitchell's many other musical projects. Morton's essay is a useful guide to all of those. And it helps to situate Mitchell at the intersection of more or less traditional jazz sensibilities and modern European compositional music.

Not long ago I had purchased a new album by Mitchell Composition/Improvisation Nos. 1,2 & 3
(ECM) which is a daunting live recording by a 14 member ensemble. The liner notes to the disc begin like this: 'Arnold Schoenberg in 1933 described composition as "slowed down improvisation," adding "often one cannot write fast enough to keep up with the stream of ideas." Indeed, the ideas on this recording burst forth, sometimes scored, but often also from musicians (singly, in sub-groups or as the whole ensemble) given wide latitude to improvise. It is difficult for me to understand quite what is going on in this music some of the time. It does make me wonder though, and I take that to be a good thing.

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The Company We Keep: Capital Punishment (2)

Just the other day I posted on the death penalty in the U.S.; I've posted on the topic several times before too. Today a very interesting story appears in The New York Times on recent debates in the legal academy regarding the deterent effects of the death penalty. Some 'law & economics' types have conducted studies that show that the death penalty has (modest to significant) deterent effects and so saves lives. The thrust of the argument is that if saving life is important (as critics of the death penalty seem to presume) then the death penalty may be warranted if, on balance, it saves lives.

Of course, there are critics of the work too. I find the question of causal mechanisms the most powerful line of questioning the critics present. Most of the studies seem to treat murder as a cold and calculated act in which the perpetrator considers the costs and benefits of killing. That may be true of some murders; I doubt it is true of most. As the The Times suggests:

"But not everyone agrees that potential murderers know enough
or can think clearly enough to make rational calculations. And the
chances of being caught, convicted, sentenced to death and
executed are in any event quite remote. Only about one in 300
homicides results in an execution."

I have not read the studies cited in The Times article. But here are some of my off-the-top-of-the-head questions and qulams. Some may be addressed in the studies. In any case, before we mount a campaign for using the death penalty we ought to consider some of these issues:

(1) Is the deterrent effect of the death penalty (as translated into saved lives) stronger than that for other severe penalties (e.g. life without parole)? Would the resources used in deterring murder via the death penalty have even greater impact if used for crime prevention measures instead of punishment?

(2) What is the point of punishment? Do we necessarily punish for deterrence? What about retribution? What about incapacitation? What about rehabilitation?

(3) Deterence is a consequentialist notion - we punish in order to have a deterent effect. But what about non-consequentialist objections to the death penalty - say rights-based objections that might invoke, say, the constitutional ban on cruel and unusual punishment?

(4) If we are going to talk about consequences (ie., dererrence) should we talk about consequences more broadly? Does the death penalty have a coarsening effect on U.S. society and culture? Any consequentialist argument has got to justify the scope and extent of the consequences it takes into account. Thus the studies reported by The Times are at best an opening salvo.

(5) What about objections to the various flawed and lopsided ways the death penalty is administered in the U.S.? I raised these in my previous post and the deterrence argument does nothing to address them. We might reject the death penalty due to insuperable procedural objections. (We could here also ask about the consequences for society of relying on a plainly flawed and lopsided regime of punishment.)

(6) Let's say that we are going to proceeed on narrowly consequentialist grounds. If the death penalty has deterrent effects shouldn't we try to heighten those effects by not simply making executions public (instead of holding them behind prison walls), but indeed by incorporating them into secondary school or college curricula (we can maybe spare the elementary and middle school pupils)? Here, as I have suggested in the past, proponents of the death penalty might read Allen Steele's terririfc short story "Doblin's Lecture" (1996) for a template on how to proceed.

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17 November 2007

The Cost of War

Marine Lance Corporal James Blake Miller,
Fallujah, Iraq, November 2004.
Photograph © Luis Sinco/Los Angeles Times

This story, penned by photojournalist Luis Sinco for The L.A. Times, is really quite remarkable in its portrayal of the cost to Miller of his tour in Iraq and the impact the photograph has had on Sinco's life as well. Sinco was embedded with Miller's unit in Iraq and snapped the photograph shown here during fighting in Falluja. Miller returned from Iraq to PTSD and Sinco to acclaim (e.g., this story on npr which links to more of Sinco's work).

I admire both men. Sinco's reflections have been picked up by The Guardian with a different title ~ "Am I to Blame for His Private War?" The answer to that is quite straightforward. No. Bush and his minions are to blame for Miller's predicament and that of many, many other vets returning as physical or psychological casualties as well as the thousands who've not returned and never will. The shame is that those others may lack the sort of kindness and friendship Sinco tries to provide to Miller.


Depicting Race, Consumption, and Violence

Image © Hank Willis Thomas

The current issue of the magazine ColorLines (Nov/Dec 07) focuses on the extremely high and disproportionate rates at which African-American and Latino men encounter violence from law enforcement. This is a useful complement to the recent discussion by Glen Loury in The Boston Review of the deplorable treatment of African-Americans in the U.S. criminal justice system [1]. As part of this issue ColorLines includes this article/interview with Hank Willis Thomas, about whom I have posted here several times before [2] [3] [4]. I think Willis Thomas, much of whose work is inspired ~ if that is the appropriate word ~ by the murder of his teenage cousin, plumbs the intersections of consumerism, violence and race in extremely incisive ways.

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The Wind that Shakes the Barley

Last night my friend Susan and I watched The Wind the Shakes the Barley the 2006 film directed by Ken Loach about the Republican resistance to the British in 1920s Ireland. It is a really terrific film and political in the broad sense that it raises all sorts of questions about the brutalizing effects of occupation on both occupiers and occupied, the troubling distinction between freedom fighter and terrorist, the conflicts between personal and political loyalties, the tensions between various political ideologies, and so on. The acting was uniformly strong and the cinematography focused on the austere beauty of rural Ireland.

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16 November 2007

The Uses of Witchcraft and the Limits of Multiculturalism

Domingos Pedro ... was accused by his family of being a witch
and of causing his father's death. His mother, Maria ... worries
about attacks by his relatives so Domingos lives in a shelter.
Domingos insisted that he admitted he was a witch only to
save his life. Photo: © Vanessa Vick for The New York Times.

Yesterday The New York Times ran a story on the plight of young chilren in several central African countries who"are accused of being witches, and then are beaten, abused or abandoned." The report is accompanied by a slideshow of photographs by Vanessa Vick. It brought to mind a typically smart essay by Clifford Geertz entitled "Common Sense as a Cultural System" in which he offers an interpretaiton of claims of witchcraft. He takes the famous analysis of E.E. Evans-Prichard among the Azande as a jumping off point:

"Thus, however "mystical" the content of Zande witchcraft
beliefs may or may not be (and I have already suggested they
seem so to me only in the sense that I do not myself hold them),
they are actually employed by the Zande in a way anything
but mysterious--as an elaboration and defense of the truth
claims of colloqial reason. . . . And it is as part of this tissue of
common-sense assumptions, not of some primitive metaphysics,
that the concept of witchcraft takes on its meaning and has its
force. For all the talk about its flying about in the night like a
firefly, witchcraft doesn't celebrate an unseen
order, it certifies a seen one.

It is when ordinary expectations fail to hold, when the Zande
man-in-the-field is confronted with anomalies or contradictions,
that the cry of witchcraft goes up. It is, in this respect at least,
a kind of dummy variable in the system of common-sense
thought. Rather than transcending that thought, it reinforces
it by adding to it an all-purpose idea which acts to reassure
the Zande that their fund of commonplaces is, momentary
appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, dependable and
adequate. Thus, if a man contracts leprosy it is attributed to
witchcraft only if there is no incest in the family, for "everyone
knows" that incest causes leprosy. Adultery, too, causes
misfortune. A man may be killed in war or hunting as a result
of his wife's infidelities. Before going to war or out to hunt, a
man, as is only sensible, will often demand that his wife divulge
the names of her lovers. If she says, truthfully, that she has
none (I don't know what the Zande common-sense view
concerning the veracity of women is, but if mere asking
seems enough it must be unusual) and he dies anyway, then
it must have been witchcraft--unless, of course, he has done
something else obviously foolish. Similarly, ignorance,
stupidity, or incompetence, culturally defined, are quite
sufficient causes of failure in Zande eyes. If, in examining his
cracked pot, the potter does in fact find a stone, he stops
muttering about witchcraft and starts muttering about his
own negligence--instead, that is, of merely assuming that
witchcraft was responsible for the stone's being there. And
when an inexperienced potter's pot cracks it is put down, as
seems only reasonable, to his inexperience, not to some
ontological kink in reality.

In this context, at least, the cry of witchcraft functions for
the Azande as the cry of Insha Allah functions for some
Muslims or crossing oneself functions for some Christians,
less to lead into more troubling questions--religious,
philosophical, scientific, moral--about how the world is put
together and what life comes to, than to block such questions
from view; to seal up the common-sense view of the world
. . . against the doubts its inevitable insufficiencies
inevitably stimulate."

I think this is a compelling analysis that avoids writing the Azande off as massively irrational.* On his account they invoke witchcraft in the face of unforeseen contingencies, happenings that in the face of widely-shared, well-established beliefs would be deemed highly improbable or impossibe. Geertz adopts a fairly tolerant stance here, as elsewhere in his writings, pointing out the way that those in Western cultures invoke analogous factors for analogous purposes. And his view is one I tend to share. But the story in The Times indicates the limits of this accepance of cultural practices. For in the cases reported by The Times young children ~ like Domingos Pedro, pictured above at age 15, who was accused of witchcraft by familiy members at age 12 ~ bear the brunt of accusations of witchcraft, often with dire consequences. This is an instance that raises the question "Why Respect Culture?" I have argued at length elsewhere that there is no prima facie reason to do so.** In situations like those described in The Times the settled beliefs and cultural practices that adults try to defend by charges of witchcraft (however embattled they may be by economic dislocation, war and other man-made mayhem) have scant normative standing in the face of the individual well-being of the children against whom the charges are leveled.

* For those dis-inclined to share this assessment I would recommend another famous essay: David Kreps. 1990. "Corporate culture and economic theory." In J. E. Alt and K. A. Shepsle (eds.), Perspectives on Positive Political Economy. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Kreps offers essentially the same argument as Geertz in a different setting with different references.

** James Johnson. 2000. "Why Respect Culture?" American Journal of Political Science 44(3): 405-18


Photograpah © Chris Ramirez for The New York Times

My granfather Harold Jones came down from Canada to work in the mills of central Massachusetts. He died before I was born. His family was from Prince Edward Island, where I have not been since I was a small child. So, this slideshow on P.E.I. from The New York Times is especially interesting to me, even though it is bit on the precious side for the reporter to be going on about raking his own oysters.

15 November 2007

Two New Books

I've discovered a couple of new, interesting books. Both are on the vicissitudes of advocating for human rights in words and pictures.

The first is by James Dawes and is entitled That the World May Know: Bearing Witness to Atrocicty (Harvard UP). Dawes is a literature professor and he focuses on the narratives and stories that those who confront and seek to ameliorate systematic inhumanity construct to make sense of the world - themselves and to those whom they are trying to "help." I have just skimmed the book but it seems like a sensitive and insightful reflection on the paradoxes of human rights work.

The second book, published by Contrasto (an Italian outfit, whose webpage is dysfunctional) is edited by Allesandra Mauro and entitled My Brother's Keeper: Documentay Photographers and Human Rights. It starts with an introductory essay by Susie Linfield, whose praises I have sung here on several occasions and offers brief examples of work by twenty-two photographers starting with Jacob Riis and including a number of contemporary photographers.